Israel’s Going Through A Spiritual Transformation. How Is It Dealing?

An interview with Ruth Calderon, a Talmud scholar and former member of Knesset, on the Judaization of the Israeli public sphere—and much more.

Israeli academic and politician Ruth Calderon in Jerusalem on March 5, 2018. Miriam Alster/FLASH90.
June 27 2022
About Neil

Neil Rogachevsky teaches at the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and is the author of Israel’s Declaration of Independence: The History and Political Theory of the Nation’s Founding Moment, published in 2023 by Cambridge University Press.

Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv has long held a special place in the Israeli imagination. On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion announced Israel’s independence there at what was then called the Tel Aviv Museum—now undergoing an extensive renovation which will hopefully do justice to the site.

Over the past few decades, the quaint and somewhat shabby gentility of the old Rothschild Boulevard has given way to a parade of higher-end restaurants, luxury-goods shops, and a cluster of skyscrapers that seems to expand by the week. It was thus no surprise that the boulevard was the site of the so-called “tent city” protest against rising costs of living in 2011. New Rothschild is one symbol of the country’s blistering economic transformation—blink twice and you might think you’re in Dubai or southern California.

Just off Rothschild stands Alma, the Hebrew cultural center and unaffiliated beit midrash led by the Talmud scholar and former Yesh Atid parliamentarian Ruth Calderon. From that perch next to Rothschild, Calderon has, over the last few decades, witnessed not only a massive material change in Israel but also a major spiritual one.

When Calderon founded Alma in 1996, she hoped to encourage secular or religiously unaffiliated Israelis to find cultural enrichment and wisdom in classic Jewish texts. The effort could have seemed quixotic in a metropolis that was then quite ardently secular.

The Israel of the mid-1990s was still divided into separate fortified camps—“the secular,” “the religious,” “the Arabs.” Each had its own rituals, texts, and home turf. The Arab universe was cantonized with Jerusalem, its hill country, the Galilee, and the south existing in different universes. Jewish texts were left to the religious sector and a few oddball academics interested in the scientific study of Judaism. Secular Israel had the humanities and social sciences developed in the hothouses of the West. Tel Aviv could have perhaps been thought of as a Hebrew city as much as a Jewish one.

Things have changed. Non-Israelis are often accused of yarmulkeh counting—exaggerating the religious turn in Israeli society. But it is indisputable that religious practice and sentiment are on the rise on main street Israel: there is more kosher food, more Shabbat, and more public Judaism than ever before.

This is not simply a matter of greater religious observance. As the historian Yossi Klein Halevi recently put it, Judaism seems to be well on the way to becoming “the public culture of Israel.” To cite the Jewishness of contemporary Israeli pop music is already a cliché or a meme—and like all such cultural touchstones, it’s simply true.

The rise of Jewish learning of a kind that Alma pioneered is a better example of the tectonic change in Israel. In 1996, Alma was the only place in Tel Aviv where non-affiliated Israelis could study the book of Ruth or a tractate of Talmud along with a poem of Yehuda Amichai. By Dr. Calderon’s count, there may now be upwards of 100 such institutions. Some of these institutions have explicit religious agendas. Others do not. Where all of this will lead is hard to predict.

“The silos that divided Israel society in the mid-1990s have broken down,” Calderon told me in her book-lined office in Alma on a recent Thursday afternoon, “we can no longer speak of religious and secular ‘camps.’”

Calderon is one of the best people to talk to about the vexing questions of religion and state in Israel. Possessing a PhD in Talmud from Hebrew University, Calderon has been, through Alma as well as television and radio projects, one of the central figures in bringing Jewish texts and culture to the Israeli public sphere over the last generation. She has also made important contributions to the study of talmudic literature. Sone of her work, including A Bride for One Night, is available in English.

In addition to her work as a distinguished teacher of Jewish texts to the Israeli public, she has more recently been directly in the political fray as a reform-minded MK. While in the Knesset, Calderon was deeply focused on constitutional reform and the biggest questions of religion and the state. Even though it’s fairly uncontroversial among both Jews and non-Jews to say that Israel is a Jewish state, the meaning of this phrase is by no means clear in the public mind. Israel is not a halakhic state, a state of Jewish law. But somehow it is a state that must advance Jewish aims or Jewish principles. What are such aims? What are such principles? Israelis have labored over such questions since the beginning of the state. And thus the religious and political identity of Israel remains very much up for grabs.

Calderon’s big idea is that Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which speaks of Israel as a Jewish state while promising to ensure complete social and political equality for all, should be enshrined as a document to concretize the religious and political identity of the state. In 2013, Calderon, enlisting the help of one of the deans of Jewish textual scholarship Moshe Halbertal, worked on legislating Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence as a Basic Law (i.e., a constitutional law) for the state. The effort did not reach the floor of the Knesset for a vote at the time. And yet it stands as one of the most notable efforts in recent times to complete Israel’s founding by clarifying, once and for all, the political and religious identity of Israel as a Jewish and liberal state.

For my part, I am skeptical about whether Israel could or should produce a single formal constitution in the current environment. I am also skeptical that Israel’s Declaration can do the work Calderon thinks it can do. But it’s impossible not to admire Calderon’s learned and spirited effort to try to address the overarching issues that we often ignore even as they are the most fundamental: how does the system of government work, why does it operate the way it does—and what can be done to improve it? In this respect Calderon offers a model of engagement with the issues that will matter most for future generations of Israelis.

Conducted in a mix of English and Hebrew, my conversation with Ruth Calderon covered three general topics: Judaism in the Jewish state, the politics of the Supreme Court, and the possibility of constitutional reform in Israel. As will become clear, these topics are inextricably connected. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


1: Judaism in the Jewish State


NR: How would you describe the status of Judaism in Israel compared to when you founded Alma a few decades ago?

RC: It makes you optimistic to see how quickly things change. In the nineties, there was no place for observant and non-observant Jews to study together. There were very few places for non-religious people to gain exposure to Torah. So much has changed. Today, the Israeli public sphere is full of Torah study of many diverse kinds. There are many new mixes of Jewish and general studies, interesting dialogues between the particular and the universal.

The secular majority of Israel that used to be uninterested in anything that happened between King David and David Ben-Gurion has become an important player in the study of Jewish literature: rabbinic texts, poetry, ḥasidic thought, kabbalah, Bible, modern Jewish thought, Jewish arts and theater. In place of the silos dividing religious and secular we have a new openness, and this is producing some intriguing blends.

Tel Aviv has become intellectually rich in this respect. Hundreds of places do work in Jewish renewal. For my children, it’s not a big deal to study Talmud, or to be a woman in the world of study. In the old days, on TV and the radio, there would be a Dvar Torah by one rabbi. Now there’s much more.

To be sure, this whole world is one teacup in the big space of Israel. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Israeli public sphere has been completely transformed. But a lot is going on. Not everything can be seen right now, but I believe major cultural changes are underway.

It always starts with a small group of people. Think of the rabbis of the Talmud. Think of how the ḥasidic movement started. Think of the kibbutz movement—the numbers were remarkably small. But then what is relevant radiates out to the wider community. Israel is in the process of producing new cultural gatekeepers, and some of these cultural gatekeepers are quite tied to Judaism.

NR: The historian Yossi Klein Halevi recently spoke of the gradual Judaization of the Israeli public sphere. Do you agree that this is happening?

RC: The divided identity between “I am an Israeli” and “I am a Jew”—that is now completely gone. So-called secular culture in Israel is now richer, closer to our great texts. I would say that the Judaization doesn’t necessarily lead to religious observance though. I think of it as enrichening of the culture by a richer view of Judaism. It’s not only Tanakh and Palmach, as in the old days. There’s much more openness now. By the way, this openness extends to Western culture as well as Arab culture. But Jewish culture has become cool. Jewish culture is in.

The formerly religious are also a part of this. Those who leave Judaism don’t really leave it—they bring their experiences and knowledge with them.

Think of the stories of Ahad Ha’am and Hayyim Naḥman Bialik—the founders of modern Hebrew culture which we hope to continue. They had left the shtetl. But they didn’t totally, they couldn’t.

NR: Could not one say though that that version of Jewish culture was successful because it was still tied, if indirectly, to the learning and habits of the old observant world. Bialik couldn’t have written many of his greatest poems had he had not come from the world of the yeshiva, even if he had left it?

RC: That is true of Bialik. But it’s not true of Theodor Herzl, for instance. My father was part of the Beitar [the right-wing Revisionist Zionist youth] movement in Bulgaria. The Jewish nationalism there, and Herzl’s Jewish nationalism, was not built on Jewish learning or literature. And it was strong. Herzl was a man of science, but his whole identity became that of the Jewish nation. He had this feeling of solidarity with all the Jews of the world, and a love of Israel. But love in the last analysis comes only from knowledge.


2. The Battle over the Supreme Court


NR: Let’s turn to the world of politics. People abroad don’t hear much about the major political issue in Israel right now—namely the conflict over the role of the Supreme Court and the conflict between the different branches of government. Could you tell me how you see the current state of play?

RC: We have three branches of here. The Supreme Court, the executive/government, and the Knesset. There is in theory separation of powers, but it’s not working so well here. The Knesset feels handcuffed by the executive, and it feels the executive won’t let it do its job. This is a sentiment widely shared by both government and opposition MKs by the way. The Knesset, supposed to be the voice of the people in our system, is weak. Meanwhile, the government is frustrated because the attorney general, the lawyers, the judges, have become so strong. This happened accidentally, by the way. It wasn’t by design.

There were no conspiracies. But it’s undeniable that our sense of balance in government is off. And this leads to the Court becoming even more powerful. For when we don’t know what course to follow, we always seem to ask: what is the law? But then the judicial power seems to many people to hinder the ability of the executive to meet its prerogatives.

Our judges mean well. The job is incredibly difficult. But now sometimes for their part they worry about meddling. So they sometimes don’t want to do the kind of work that is left to them today. [NR: Calderon is here expressing the opinion that the Supreme Court of Israel, while clearly “activist” in many ways, sometimes pulls its punches on constitutional matters for fear of igniting political firestorms. This, she believes, is an unhealthy situation. The Court, in her view, is not restrained by any formal constitutional doctrine, but by fear].

My response is that we need a written constitution to do the really hard work, to deal with foundational questions that only a constitution can address, and which can’t be addressed in the courthouse.

However this may be, it’s clear our system is out of balance. And we must reestablish that balance between the powers. We must strengthen the Knesset. We must give the executive its freedom of action and its prerogative. And we must re-establish respect for the Supreme Court.

NR: I was interested by the fact that you see the government or executive as an independent branch, separate from the Knesset. [It’s been a matter of some uncertainty in parliamentary systems whether the cabinet of ministers is really a distinct branch from the parliament as a whole.]

RC: The Knesset is its own branch of government in that it is the one that is tied to the people. The Knesset is full of representatives of the people: 120 members, who represent the nation. The government—i.e., the executive—needs to answer to the people as represented in the Knesset. And this doesn’t happen too much these days. As for the Supreme Court, we should only turn to it when we get in real trouble. The tools we have could work, but these days we’re not using them properly.

I’m not one of those who think that the Israeli political system is illogical. There’s really nice logic to it. To pass a law, it can’t be us against them. You need a coalition. You need to persuade people—your own people and some of the opposition—to build a law.

NR: That seems strange, because there seems to be greater consensus on fundamental issues than there has been in a very long time—say on Iran, for instance.

RC: Yes, there’s no party that’s eager that they get nuclear weapons. And there are good people in politics. But the pressure we are living under: coronavirus, inflation, the weather, terrorist attacks. It’s boiling here right now. That makes public-policy reform and politics in general very difficult.


III. A Constitution for Israel?


NR: Let’s talk about the question of a constitution. Advocacy for a constitution has been at the center of your political work. Can you explain why you think Israel needs a written constitution?

RC: We are facing a few major issues in Israel. But the biggest one is the question of the identity of the state. And that needs to be settled and set down on paper. And, as a Talmud scholar, my approach to this is to go back to something we already agreed upon. And the Declaration of Independence is the place to start. We already signed it. And this classic text contains our fundamental beliefs. We are a Jewish state. We are a democratic state, with complete equality to all citizens. These are our foundational beliefs.

NR: Israel’s Supreme Court has stated many times that the Declaration teaches Israelis about the democratic and Jewish character of the state, but it has stopped short of calling it a constitution or a constitutional text. Why should it be legislated by the Knesset?

RC: The Knesset is the voice of the people, and I believe in the people. Ceremony, or “majesty in the laws,” is a very important part of human culture. So if the people, through the Knesset, decide once again to sign on the Declaration of Independence, it will be like a marriage ceremony—an expression of a vow. The Declaration is like a marriage k’tubah. It states who are we and commits us to it.

We need this because, as of now, there’s uncertainty about our national identity even though, as I said, the old silos are breaking down. There’s still a struggle. Some want a religious state. Some want a binational state. If we can legislate the Declaration as the preamble of a written constitution—and one day we might have a constitution—we can help clarify our national identity in a profound way.

Of course, the Declaration can only be a preamble to a constitution. We need a formal constitution as well. Our founders didn’t succeed in producing one in 1948 even though they pledged to produce one in a couple of months. But parts of were written slowly and over time. The Basic Laws are constitutional laws. They deal with substantial freedoms. Slowly, we are building a constitution. Maybe one day we’ll realize we are finished, have a ceremony, and say we have a constitution.

NR: What do you think of the recently passed Basic Law, the Nation-State Law (2019), which states that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people?

RC: I think it’s unfortunate. The Declaration of Independence works better. The Declaration says we are a Jewish state but also doesn’t exclude anyone. It doesn’t downgrade anyone. It doesn’t for instance downgrade Arabic language. It’s a wonderful thing to live near Arabic. It’s enriching. Arabic is beautiful and culturally enriching. What do I gain from downgrading it? What’s the fear? That we will suddenly convert to Islam? This is not a serious threat.

I would advocate for legislating the Declaration of Independence rather than the recent law. It is a better text. The Declaration is a coherent text like a work of art is coherent. It leaves room for interpretation. We are always interpreting the Bible, for instance. And then we take the interpretations, and we interpret those. The Declaration can be a rich basis for interpretation. And since it’s not rigid, it remains relevant.

The Supreme Court should be able to refer to the Declaration of Independence. They should go to this canonical text and interpret it. But I want people on the Court who really represent the nation.

We are living in confusion. We need a canonical text that watches over us. A text that is not itself, but that expresses our principles and calls on us to uphold them.

NR: Final question, on a somewhat different topic. How do you think Israelis should think about the Diaspora today?

RC: I would like to say that the Zionist project can’t be done just with Israelis. It needs its partners from abroad. The opinions, the experience, the point of view, is important. I was just in Latin America. We today need to help those who live in the Diaspora, to guard the treasures that come from their heritage. And that heritage differs so dramatically. Canadian Jewish culture isn’t American Jewish culture.

Judaism is particularistic as well as universal. It’s not McDonald’s. You won’t find the same thing in every place.

NR: Chabad, valuable as it is, does seem to be a religion for “anywhere”—the same in many diverse places.

RC: If that’s the Chabad approach I don’t accept it! Israelis today should be in the business of preserving the treasures of the Diaspora. In every place, there was interchange between the Jews and the dominant local culture. And that interchange created something that was just there. We as Israelis should learn about this and understand it. We shouldn’t say: here is the big show and there was just practice. There were places in the world where Jews did marvelous and unique things. In philosophy, law, art, many other domains.

Our kind of Zionism has at times been one that refuses to look back. I understand it. When ambitious children leave their parents’ home, they don’t look back on what they had. Only much later do they look back, look to the origins, and realize what kind of world they had.

I believe that Israel is coming to this age. We are beginning to value our inheritance. And we should look to preserve the good things we have had while also looking forward.

Readers who want to learn more about Israel’s Declaration of Independence and its role as a constitutional document are invited to read this six-part series on the subject by the Israeli historian Martin Kramer, including responses and discussion from the Israeli legal scholars Eugene Kontorovich and Yonatan Green.—The Editors

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Supreme Court